The London Years: The way to anyone’s heart is through the stomach (2 of 20)

I was sprawled on the couch, hair and makeup professionally done, exhausted and half asleep. The production assistant was sent out to get me some chocolate and he came back with a velvety patisserie sweet that put some fire in my belly again. I was soon up on my feet in front of the camera and thinking back, this was one of the most random and fun things I’ve ever done. Shooting promotional content professionally – I mean, what the hell had happened?

Don’t know what’s going on? I’m leaving London soon so this is one of my 20 London stories – a celebration of 20 years of my life here.

I moved to London in 2022, skilled in the great arts of frying an egg and making pasta. I was 22 and had lived all my life in a country where food was abundant and relatively cheap. My mother lived close by, the souvlaki place knew my order by heart and central Athens at the time was full of small restaurants with proper Greek food – nothing fancy, just what you’d find in any normal household – for a few Euros.

So here I was, in London with not a lot of cooking skills and very little money (and by that I mean almost non existent).

Maybe a little family history. I don’t remember my mum or my granny ever really enjoying cooking. There were no domestic goddesses in my immediate vicinity. Regardless though, I grew up around (and under) “tables”. The Greeks don’t give “dinner parties”, we invite people over to “a table”. It’s loud, messy, there’s always too much food and it takes hours. The kids are around and some (ahem… me) might hide under the table to listen to the gossip that comes only after good food and good drink.

Food is central to Greek culture. It’s rarely fancy but it’s always plentiful and if you are a kid who notices things – like I was – it always comes with stories. Some food is immigrant food – from Asia Minor, from Istanbul, from the Black Sea. Some food is secret food – a family recipe that’s never shared. Some food is special food – like white sweets and biscuits for an engagement party.

I seemed to have noticed all this when I was a child and then promptly forgot – only to be reminded when I came to London. To be honest, learning how to cook was a product of two necessities.

First, there was rarely ever any money for luxuries in those days. Expenses had to be tightly controlled – my salary for £900 per month and my rent was £350 (bills not included). As much as I hated lentil soup as a child, the adult trying to survive in London quickly appreciated its low cost. I wasn’t starving, but steak was not on the menu every day.

Secondly though, food became a bridge, a tangible exploration of my old and new identity. A Greek in London.

Back in the early 2000s Greek London was extremely limited. There was North London with its Cypriot neighborhoods and tavernas and maybe a couple of Greek restaurants in West London – aka Onassis-wannabe central. The influx of contemporary Greeks and the exciting new Greek restaurants post-financial crisis were in the distant future. You wanted to eat pastitsio or tzatziki? You had better learn how to make them.

And that’s what I did. My mother offered advice from afar (we used Netmeeting in those days believe it or not) and she also sent me her only cookbook. A tattered wedding gift from the 70s with no photos but plenty of old fashioned Greek recipes. It even includes advice for the server – different from the advice to the hostess and a full list of necessary cooking utensils, pots and pans. It still has pride of place on my cooking books shelf.

Slowly, painstakingly, stubbornly, I learned. I developed a bit of a reputation for cooking amongst friends. I was not accomplished but I was one of the few people in my circle who could make what the Greeks call “home food”. Simple everyday recipes you could not find in the London restaurants. I hosted many dinners, lunches, BBQs and Christmas celebrations. It gave me incredible joy to have people over and recreate in London a little bit of something of that childhood magic – grown ups around a table, community in action.

One day, as a joke and a little bit as a bet to impress a boy I liked (what a disaster that was), I put a camera in front of me and hey presto became a YouTuber. I made grainy videos – I filmed on my laptop in those days – and loved them. As I was already blogging in Greek it was easy to slot those into my… normal programming as it were. A blog post about how to find a job in London and then a video about how to make frappe.

It was all a bit silly but it did something magical for me. It helped me navigate being abroad. 

Leaving home and finding a new home is a difficult process especially for a young drama queen. If you had asked me then I don’t think I would have been able to articulate it – this need to be connected to something that’s part of your core identity. An attempt to stay grounded, connected to something you know because London was wonderful and incredible and chaotic and VAST and sometimes really fucking SCARY

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Sofia Gkiousou (@sofiagk)

Food became an incredible tool to find community, to be creative and – most importantly – to find a way to love London. The moment I became a more serious cook was the moment I also became a more adventurous eater and student of food. I went to the small and the big food markets, I tried to sample other cuisines, I read books and watched shows as well as YouTubers from other cultures. 

Before I knew it, I had found comfort in London’s multicultural food scene. I had lists of restaurants I wanted to try, recipes I wanted to attempt. I went to the Turkish shops and the Chinese shops. I wasn’t always successful in my cooking but I was enthusiastic and persistent. As my actual career progressed, as the almost non existent money became a bit more existent, I managed to go to the restaurants I couldn’t before. I found places that do creative things with nostalgic food (of which Oklava is my current favourite). Above all, I found a type of home in food, a type of identity, a place again around (and under) the table. 

The journey brought me to that couch in Athens, exhausted, filming with Ogilvy Greece for Hellmanns. It seems that yours truly was a bit of an influencer before that was a thing – do I sound old? I think I do. 

It gave me my first journal paper, “Hybridizing food cultures in computer-mediated environments: Creativity and improvisation in Greek food blogs”. It sounds pretentious, like most academic papers, but it was the first time I sat down and thought about what cooking gave me. What cooking and writing about cooking and filming cooking and reading about cooking while being in London gave me.

One year, a Greek girl I had “met” through the blog messaged me on Christmas eve. She was in London with her mum for a little holiday. London, if you’ve never been, is completely shut down on Christmas day and I knew they would be alone with a sad slice of Christmas turkey at their hotel, served by people who honestly would prefer to be somewhere else. I made her take a taxi and come over. I had cooked a HUGE turkey that year – which in all honesty was a bit dry. The table was laden with too much food – some of it yummy – and friends were there to eat, to drink and to play music.

Her mother sat on the couch, looking around, singing along with us, kindly complimenting the turkey . I think she was one of the few people who absolutely got me. She had spent many years in the United States and I always like to think that she knew, how a new home is home and how far away from home it can be.

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My #20LondonStories

  1. Grexit/ Brexit 
  2. The way to anyone’s heart is through the stomach
  3. The night bus 
  4. Words save our lives… sometimes 
  5. The rest is noise 
  6. How not to bite your nails in the Officials’ Box 
  7. Always have a sister 
  8. Greek London 
  9. This green and pleasant land 
  10. The bridge of aspiration 
  11. The knight in well travelled armor 
  12. Carpets in the toilet and other adventures in housing
  13. Moments in Art 
  14. The NHS hunger games 
  15. In nocte consilium
  16. The friends we found, the friends we lost
  17. Blogging tips for beginners 
  18. Lord of Gondolin, Bane of Gothmog, mighty beater of his headboard, conqueror of the slide, aka our child
  19. γνῶθι σεαυτόν
  20. How to leave London

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